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Last Mile Internet Access

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As the internet becomes more dynamic and interactive, the advantage of faster data transfer has become more apparent. More users find themselves waiting for what seems like hours (and sometimes is) for a file to download. We are bombarded with advertising, touting miraculous new technologies, which will connect us at the speed of light and therefore enrich our lives.


    The fact is that few major providers are willing to make the investment in facilities to bring these services to a county where the major community boasts a population of 25,000. There are buildings in Chicago that have more telephone lines than all of Bonner County, and until companies have fully saturated the high density areas, they just aren't interested in stringing fiber 17 miles up a dirt road to service one customer. I have been in meetings where I heard Spokane referred to in a discussion about “servicing the last mile,” but there was no mention of Bonners Ferry.

   Some of us feel that our lives are rich enough because we live in the "real" last mile. We are not interested in moving to the technology, so let's discuss our "real" options for accessing the internet.

   We'll begin with dial-in modem service, a technology that has been available to most of us since the mid– 90’s, and will very likely be with us for a while. The standard today for connecting a modem to the internet is v.90, which is the 56k standard, and most Internet Service Providers (ISP) have upgraded to this standard. In actuality v.90 will only allow speeds up to 53k, but the actual speed of your connection to your provider is largely dependant on your "local loop" which is the telephone line that connects you to the phone company central switch. At the switch the signal is converted from analog to digital and is passed on to the terminal server at your ISP.

   Since Hayes developed the “smart modem,” modems have the ability to negotiate a speed at which they are confident they will get a reliable connection, and they keep reducing the connection rate until they reach that level of confidence and your analog local loop is a major factor in determining just how fast that may be.

   In the last year DSL has become available in our parts, once again working it's way out from the population centers. DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Line and is carried over a standard 2-wire telephone circuit that allows for simultaneous, digital delivery of data and normal telephone traffic. To take advantage of DSL you'll need a network interface card (nic) in your computer, a DSL modem, DSL service from your telco, and an internet connection from an ISP.

   Current DSL technology will only support service over a local loop, which is less than 18,000 feet, which means that your location must be within about 3 miles of a DSL access point to qualify. The problem is that it doesn't go 3 miles and then drop off. Service begins to degrade the first foot out of the building, and legacy devices like load coils and bridge taps can affect the ability of your line to qualify. We had one case where a client’s home qualified and the neighbor’s wouldn’t. Your ISP will help you get your lines checked and give you pricing on different service offerings.

   With DSL speeds are accelerated exponentially. DSL comes in a number of flavors, but ADSL is the version currently being implemented in our area. ADSL (Asymmetric DSL) allows for incoming data to be transported at higher speeds than the outgoing request so you will see services rated in terms like 786 X 128, meaning that you ask for files at 128k, but download them at 786k. As you can see this is a great improvement over 56k modem service.

   Additionally, DSL is always on, so you don't have to wait to connect, but there are some security risks associated with this convenience. Since your computer is always on the ‘net, it is a regular target for hackers and other villains, and I want to suggest (from experience) that no computer is too obscure to be immune from an attack.

   There are a number of inexpensive firewalls available to protect you from hackers. For businesses this is an imperative, but even for home users the added security can save you a lot of lost sleep.

   In areas where DSL is unavailable, a wireless connection may be a good solution for high-speed access. Wireless offers all the advantages of DSL and is quickly becoming an affordable option, although the start up cost is much higher. Also it is a “line of sight” solution, but if you can see your providers’ antennae, service can be extended to about 6 miles. I might add that all of the same security considerations apply as with DSL.

   To date cable connection is not available to my knowledge, leaving satellite as the only other alternative. My experience with satellite is limited but I'll pass on what I know. Until recently satellite connection was a “download only” service. It doesn't take a lot of power to send a signal from a satellite to earth, however it does take a lot of power to get from earth to the satellite. Historically this was an expensive proposition, so the “uplink” was actually done by a connection to a land based ISP. Lately there have been some advancements in this technology, which allow 2 way satellite connectivity, but promises to get it to market seem to have been exaggerated, and I suspect when it does become available it will be expensive at first. I also want to mention that people who purchased satellite systems for interactive gaming have reported that they were really disappointed with the latency in response times.

   So to sum it all up, the Inland Northwest is a great place to live. As for communications technologies...... well, they'll get better, I promise.

     Tom Walton is the CEO of Pend Oreille Valley Networks.

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